Richard Elman

Richard Elman

Richard Elman (April 23, 1934 - December 31, 1997), novelist, poet, critic, and teacher was born in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, graduated from Syracuse University in 1955 and received a master's degree at Stanford University two years later. He worked variously as a public affairs director for WBAI-FM in New York, a correspondent in Central America, a ghostwriter for a poverty program, and teacher of creative writing at many places, including Columbia University, the Bennington College Summer Writing Workshops, and the State University of New York at Stony Brook. A self-described socialist, Elman published more than twenty books,including a pungent comic novel, Tar Beach (1991), in which he related the story of an 8 year-old boy growing up Jewish in Brooklyn after World War II. In the New York Times Book Review, John Domini called it a "first-rate" novel that delivers "with admirable light-heartedness" the bad news of just how fragile family life is wont to be. "Rarely has a slice of life been cut so thin, so elegantly," Mr. Domini wrote.

When his first novel A Coat for the Czar came out in 1959 Elman realized that writing fiction was all he really wanted to do. His next big project turned into a trilogy about a Hungarian Jewish family, The Twenty-Eighth Day of Elul, (1967), Lilo's Diary (1968), and The Reckoning (1969).

Throughout his career, he also contributed articles, essays and book reviews to many publications, The New York Times frequently among them. Some of his writing, including novels, used pseudonyms (John Howland Spyker for Little Lives), because he believed that writers must speak in different voices lest they start sounding like their own echoes. His latest book, Namedropping: Mostly Literary Memoirs, is a memoir of reflections on his life and work and the people he got to know. A collection of poems, Love, Richard: Last Poems and Translations (Junction Press) and the novel Love Handles (Green Integer) will be published posthumously.

Richard Elman is survived by his wife of 20 years Alice Elman; their daughter, Lila Elman, his elder daughter Margaret Elman; and his brother Leonard Elman. A memorial, The Richard Elman Lecture in Creative Writing, is delivered annually at Syracuse University.

Mostly Literary Memoirs
(Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998)

These are Richard Elman’s candid snapshots in prose of the various, mostly literary celebrities he encountered during his four decades as a working writer and journalist—among them Isaac Bashevis Singer, Tillie Olsen, Bernard Malamud, Faye Dunaway, Hunter S. Thompson, and other important artists and writers who were Elman’s teachers and, occasionally adversaries. Engagingly written and never superficial, these portraits and anecdotes in many cases strike to the center of each subject’s art. To many readers, these persons are just “names”’ Elman brings them to life while never simplifying or overdramatizing their work.

Cocktails at Somoza's
(Cambridge, MA: Applewood Books, 1981)

Uptight with the Rolling Stones
A Novelist's Report
(New York: Scribner, 1973)

Ill-at-Ease in Compton
(New York: Pantheon, 1967)

The Poorhouse State
The American Way of Life on Public Assistance
(New York: Pantheon, 1966)

For a copy of the manuscript, “The Aesthetics of the CIA,” quoted in The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters by Frances Stonor Saunders (New Press. NY, 1999), contact


The Grouch, Desperately Seeking Justice, Closely Cropped Locks, The Girl from Samos, and the Shield
eds. David R. Slavitt and Palmer Bovie
(Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998)


Euripedes, 3
Alcestis, Daughters of Troy, The Phoenician Women, Iphigenia at Aulis, and Rhesus
eds. David R. Slavitt and Palmer Bovie
(Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998)


Love Handles
(Los Angeles, CA: Green Integer Press)

Tar Beach
(Los Angeles: Sun and Moon Press, 1991)

Disco Frito
(Salt Lake City: Peregrine Smith, 1988)

The Menu Cypher
(New York: Macmillan, 1982)

The Breadfruit Lotteries
(New York: Methuen, 1980)

Little Lives
(Under the pseudonym John Howland Spyker)
(New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1978)

Crossing Over and Other Tales
(New York: Scribner, 1973)

Fredi & Shirl & The Kids
(New York: Scribner, 1972)

An Education in Blood
(New York: New York, Scribner, 1971)

The Reckoning
(New York: Scribner, 1969)

Lilo's Diary
(New York: Scribner 1968)

The 28th Day of Elul
(New York: Scribner, 1967)
(London: Hutchinson, 1967)

A Coat for the Tsar
(Austin: University of Texas Press, 1958)


Smokey and the Bandit
(written under the pseudonym Delmar Hanks)

The Gangster Chronicles
(written under the pseudonym Michael Lasker, with Richard A. Simmons)

Taxi Driver
(with Paul Schrader)
(New York: Bantam Books, 1976)


Love, Richard
Last Poems and Translations
(New York: Junction Press)

Cathedral - Tree - Train
and Other Poems
(New York: Junction Press, 1992)

In Chontales
(Port Jefferson, NY: Street Press, 1980)

Homage to Fats Navarro
(New York: New Rivers Press, 1978)

The Man Who Ate New York
(New York: New Rivers Press, 1975)


Incisive and irreverent, these tales of a writer’s travels in the literary world intrigue, amuse, and, paradoxically, create a fascinating self-portrait -- warts and all.
-- Kelly Cherry, University of Wisconsin

Richard Elman obviously has had a talent for friendship, especially with writers whose work he admired. He seems to have known or met everyone, from Tillie Olsen and Robert Lowell to Faye Dunaway, and his recollections usually capture something essential or unexpected about them, and finally about himself. Many of his idols were bound to disappoint him, as he sometimes disappoints himself, but his plain-spoken honesty is bracing. The rueful, bittersweet sketch of I.B. Singer is itself worth the price of admission.
-- Morris Dickstein, Distinguished Professor of English, City University of New York

Richard Elman’s Namedropping is the most refreshing of rogues’ galleries, for all its rogues are articulate and accomplished. Here is a memoir in the form of a biography, in the tradition of Ford Madox Ford, another learned and provocative man of letters. Elman is funny, irreverent, and, most of all, generous of heart.
-- William O’Rourke, author of Signs of the Literary Times: Essays, Reviews, Profiles 1970-1992

I think it a remarkable collocation of memories -- an original work of words, as well as a series of sharply limned portraits of those whose names are dropped. Both the narrative vantage deployed and the attitudes displayed are worth disseminating widely; there’s a freshness to the observation even of men and women long dead that brings them to life on the page.
-- Nicholas Delbanco, University of Michigan

The late Richard Elman liked to write against the literary tide. Typically, at a moment when so many writers try to embrace their own images, Namedropping, Elman’s literary memoir, is an album of other people, from Yvor Winters to Little Richard, mostly writers, caught in passing or portrayed full-length. By going his own way, Elman has created something distinctive that belongs on the shelf with John Aubrey’s Brief Lives or shorter pieces in Johnson’s Lives of the English Poets.
-- Lemuel Coley, American Book Review, March/April 1999

The New York Times Book Review, August 23, 1998
On the basis of these astute and entertaining pieces, it's clear that Elman had what Keats called negative capability -- the ability to enter into other people's moral natures while suspending moral judgment -- in abundance....Namedropping is a slight but mostly absorbing collection. On the one hand, it offers some delicious gossip as a form of social history. ... Mingled in with the gossip are tart and satisfying remarks like this one about Hunter Thompson, who once took Elman on a terrifying nighttime motorcycle ride: "All I ever learned from his depictions of Las Vegas and political conventions I knew in kindergarten...."

American Book Review, March/April 1999
The late Richard Elman liked to write against the literary tide. Typically, at a moment when so many writers try to embrace their own images, Namedropping, Elman's literary memoir, is an album of other people, from Yvor Winters-to Little Richard, mostly writers, caught in passing or portrayed full-length. By going his own way, Elman has created something distinctive that belongs on the shelf with John Aubrey's Brief Lives or shorter pieces in Johnson's Lives of the English Poets....And the not-so-famous, even the forgotten get equal time. This range gives Namedropping its distinction....For much of Namedropping is a banquet. So many dishes, so many flavors, courses. So many wonderful characters artfully served up, caught in a line, a gesture.


Richard Elman's long poem, Cathedral-Tree-Train, is not conventionally poetic, but throughout its searching, melancholic length the heart of poetry is here. Frequently the poem is set free from simple narrative and floats toward the surreal- clearly it is a more vital exactitude of mood that Elman is after. An elegy, it is not so much against death as it is against failures and solitudes, and all the unanswerable questions of our world. Altogether, Cathedral-Tree-Train is fraught, extreme, brave, and beautiful.
-- Mary Oliver, Pulitzer Prize Winner

This ingeniously constructed book begins as melancholy memoir for the years when jazz musicians and abstract-expressionist painters were the risk-fueled heroes of American artists. There's an elegy for a painter friend of the poet, and also for the assumptions about the psychic sources of art by which the painter and period lived and died. The book ends in the present: identity is slithery, aging steady, knowledge tentative and wry. The book is not, finally, the story of anyone's life, but the story of how we suffer and revise the myths we live by. I don't know a book of poems quite like this one.
-- William Matthews

Cathedral-Tree-Train records those times when we have to revise our assumptions, revise and revise again. This can be embarrassing and painful. And it never ends neatly. In this very moving and unusual book, Elman's voice remains persistent and sincere.
-- Julie H. White, The South Bend Tribune

Much of this book concerns a young painter's suicide. In tender and angry poems, Elman questions the reasons for this waste of life and talent. Like an archaeologist, [he] excavates his memories, examining them for clues to understanding. That he does not, at last, understand seems the truest thing in these poems.
-- Pat Monaghan, Booklist